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Why I Left Teaching To Work For A Unique Literary Festival In Kolkata

Teaching in a college, questions that I often found myself debating with my students ranged from how the book industry is dying, how parents don’t know how to make their kids interested in reading, how people prefer their phones over their books, to how only bestsellers work, all other books being just the dinosaurs in the room which are waiting for that last meteor in the form of a new Pokémon-like game to wipe them clean. Yet somehow our country at the moment has over 10 literary festivals proliferating like over-eager pigeons with people from different parts of the country thronging to them, spending time listening to writers they might have never read. This disconnection intrigued me, arousing the sleeping giant of a curious cat, the Sherlock Holmes that resides in all of us. So, I did what any (in)sane person in my place would do: I quit my job, changed cities and came to Kolkata and joined the team of Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival (AKLF).

Did the gamble pay off? Well I get paid a lot less and have work hours which, lets say, are not the kind that us government type people are very comfortable with. But in the last one year, I have met writers and readers who many of us may not know but are quietly changing the world as we know it, I have had heated debates about whether Dylan truly deserved the Nobel, I had worked with a team that collectively mourned with me when an Eco passed away or who all dressed up as Harry Potter characters to welcome the new Rowling book.

This year, the festival, which is from 15 to 18 January in the scenic St Paul’s cathedral grounds and the about-to-be-hundred Oxford Bookstore, has chosen to stand in solidarity with the idea of inclusiveness in a world which is sinking into the abyss of boundaries and borders. Bringing together music in its Plugin-The Music Festival with Underground Authority and other bands performing, the children’s festival, Oxford Junior Literary Festival, writers like Shashi Tharoor, Devdutt Pattanaik, Raj Kamal Jha, Nayantara Sahgal and many more, we have a festival that is taking the demons by the horns and telling them we are not going to go silently into the night.

As I sit writing this in the middle of my workday (yes, we are allowed such luxuries. Now you know why I love this job!), with earphones blasting Queen into my ears and pre-festival mayhem working its way around my team, I realise I am lucky to be part of something which, in times like this, works with the aim of making the world a little more debate-friendly, giving those new poets, musicians, readers, believers, shy-closeted writers like me a place to be at home, giving in to our crazy dreams of writing that one thing that will change the world. For every shutting down of dissent and debate, we have festivals like AKLF which bring together the yays and the nays in the same place and make them take a pledge to have each other’s back. As Dylan says,

“Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again.”

Come to AKLF 2017. Speak, listen, know, make up your mind and then unmake it again.

The Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival is India’s first major literary initiative of the year, India’s only literary Festival created by a bookstore, and Kolkata’s first literary festival. This event, which is free and open to all, reflects Kolkata’s vibrancy of thought and its engagement with the literary world at large. AKLF 2017, the eighth edition of the event, will take place on 15th-18th January, 2017. You can check out the schedule here.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

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Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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Read more about the campaign here.

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Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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